Lord Curzon and the Taj Mahal
The main point of the journey, as I said, was to see the Taj Mahal – partly out of that vague “what you should see before you die” impetus, partly because there is a great new book by Giles Tillotson just about to come out in my Wonders of the World series, which had sparked my interest even more.
We got to Agra from Delhi when it was dark, booked to stay in the only hotel which has direct views of the Taj. If you’re coming all that way for such a short time you don’t want to miss a minute of the potential view . . though the truth was that it was mostly misty and/or dark while we were there (though see our best bedroom view on the left) .
Following all the advice, we then got up at 6.00 to see the building as the sun was coming up. Even on a grey-ish morning it was fantastic, and when we’d done the oohing and aahing, I read the family some pages of Tillotson on how the Taj had been fought over for centuries, how some of European critics had tried to claim a European ancestry for it (wasn’t it just too good for the Mughals to have done themselves?), and so on – up to Islamic-Hindu conflicts of more recent times.
It was in the imperial part of this story that Lord Curzon came in.
Legendary Viceroy (1899-1905) and subject of that famous Oxford squib ‘My name is George Nathaniel Curzon/ I am a most superior person . . .’ – I hadn’t been prepared to admire him too much. But it quickly became clear that he had done huge amounts to rescue some of the major Indian antiquities, including the Taj. Much of the garden round it is his design – including the bench where Lady Di was famously photographed.
He also saved the Mughal palace-city of Fatehpur Sikri, which we went onto after the Taj. I got the feeling that he was a bit of an Indian version of Lord Elgin. No doubt, his restorations were inspired by an imperialist, orientalising vision of the Indian past, and so ‘bad’ for that reason. But without his intervention, many of these monuments would simply have crumbled.
The final leg of the journey was back to Delhi, via another Mughal Tomb at Sikandra. There the monsoon heavens opened (you can see the storm clouds in the photo above), to the enormous delight of most of the Indian visitors (though we were stranded with only one umbrella, which was hardly much of a defence against the torrents).
The good news, in a way, was that the rain cleared the roads. Only the bravest bikers and camels ventured onto the highway, which gave us a speedier journey back to Delhi. As we passed through the various villages en route, we watched the kids swimming happily in the great pools of water that had collected at the roadside.
The pleasure at the sight of this rural idyll was tempered by the obvious fact that the make-shift swimming pools were fed by the open sewers as well as the rain water. Lets hope that the kids had robust immunity.